The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (On Film)

Through a somewhat strange twist of events I find myself again writing about Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Strange, I say, because despite the fact that his Millennium series does have some merit, I really don’t like it that much. I know, I know. You’re welcome to disagree, but spare me–I intrinsically have trouble with the fact that readers pass around a book filled with incredible–and constant–violence against women, recommending it as if it were some jolly, fun-filled adventure romp. Sure, I can get the occasional ya-ya from a nice vengeance scenario, but I’m sorry–just because a female character gets her righteous retribution doesn’t mean that anything’s been solved on a deeper level. Additionally–and I admit, I haven’t read the last installment yet–the fact that Lisbeth suddenly becomes invincible in the 2nd novel, is, I think, completely farcical. In a fictional world which ascribes to real-world constraints, one should not be able to be shot in the head, buried alive, and then dig oneself out at the last minute. She’s tough. Not invincible.

But clearly, I digress.

The fact is, the series raises some really interesting topics of discussion, and I have legitimately enjoyed hashing these out. There’s the vigilante aspect and the social commentary on the faltering welfare state. There’s also Larsson’s context in the greater scheme of Scandinavian crime fiction. And now, there’s the film adaptation of the first book, finally available stateside.

So it seems, I will continue to be interested in discussing Larsson’s lasting effect on the genre–which undoubtedly, he’s had–while still not being able to jump on the freight train of overwhelming approval. I reviewed the film adaptation by Danish director Niels Arden Oplev (who I would actually like to know more about, although the New York Times did write a fairly interesting profile recently) for The L Magazine. The full text of the review is below or can be read on their website, here.

Update, 3/26/10: Anthony Lane posted more developed, but not dissimilar, review of the movie in The New Yorker. He (obviously) does a better job of getting at the actual film-making aspects, but also talks about Lisbeth’s overwhelming back story and the way in which Salander–and her traumas–are sexualized.You can read his review here.

***

The Sweden represented in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy is one which consistently falls short of the promises of its cushy welfare society. In his novels, Larsson accomplishes his take-down by creating a comprehensive–if rather convoluted–portrait of systemic failure and abuse at every layer of society, highlighting both white collar embezzlement and institutionalized misogyny. In Danish director Niels Arden Oplev’s film adaptation of the first novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the layers of conspiracy and societal failure are significantly pared down, pulling focus to the ongoing tribulations (and retaliations) of Larsson’s avenging hacker badass, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Repace).

The story scuttles between multiple plots, most notably intrepid journalist Mikael Blomkvist’s (Michael Nyqvist) investigation into the disappearance and presumed murder of sixteen year old Harriet Vanger forty years in the past. In a convenient twist, Salander teams up with Blomkvist to investigate, discovering along the way the sordid history of the Vanger family (both their contentious family business and sympathies to the Swedish Nazi movement), as well as a series of unsolved, Biblically inspired homicides targeting young women all over Sweden.

While Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg’s screenplay does a reasonable job of reining in Larsson’s sprawling plot, its efforts to create an immediately empathetic heroine out of Salander are rather out of step with the novel’s overall concerns. Larsson goes to great lengths in his first book to emphasize that Salander–whose motivations and history remain, at least for a time, unknown–is one of a multitude of victimized women. The original title, after all, is Män som hatar kvinnor or, literally, Men Who Hate Women. In the English translation, the series has misleadingly become a saga about one woman, a preoccupation which is evident in the film adaptation as well. Salander is, after all, a sexy character, and the svelte Repace is given ample opportunity to vamp–bedecked in leather and dog collars, displaying her yakuza-style back tattoo during a shadowy sex scene, wielding tasers and golf clubs with brutal accuracy.

Foregoing much of the novel’s social commentary, the film might more appropriately be called Men Who Hate Lisbeth Salander. Within the first fifteen minutes, she’s been skeptically observed by a client at her workplace, sexually harassed by her guardian, and attacked by drunk hooligans in the pristine Stockholm subway who inexplicably punch her in the face and spit on her before she menaces them with a broken bottle. (And that’s not even the worst of it.) These incidents are not out of step with the source material, but deployed as monotonously as they are, they act as shorthand–a reductive way to humanize Salander while offering up a pat explanation for how she has become the suspicious, emotionally stunted and volatile person that she’s shown to be.

This is taken a step further when Salander’s backstory is prematurely introduced–images of her during a violent childhood incident are repeatedly intercut with scenes of her behaving violently in her adulthood. This incident will be thoroughly covered in the series’ next installment, but for now, the scene gives the audience yet another reason to root for our aggrieved heroine. Lying in bed with Salander, Blomkvist finally asks what the film has been pushing us to ponder all along: “What happened to make you this way?”

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